The problems of Japanese ecomusée

hiroyuki KAJIHARA
* Maneger/curator of Aso Tanibito Ecomusée, Japan

2. Several problems of Japanese ecomusées

 I have researched and studied Japanese ecomusée for this study but found few to be good examples. I will put the problems of Japanese ecomusée into shape briefly.
 The reason why ecomusée came into fashion in Japan between the 1980s and 1990s was simple. They were expecting a marked improvement in their communities with this new system and on a shoestring budget. Contrary to their expectations, the situation became more and more complicated.
 Ecomusées in Japan are roughly classified into the following four types. (1) as a neighborhood action, (2) as a conservation movement, (3) as a tourism reorganization, and (4) as a museum improvement. Indeed, there is a society of ecomusée in Japan(*9), but so many people with various aims are contributing to it that now it is in chaos. Nobody has a clear definition of what an ecomusée should be or what to do next. One person insists on a cooperative spirit of the community’s people, another insists on the conservation of nature, and someone works hard at his new business, and a very few museologists observe the situation. They certainly had their own problems in the community at first, but they somehow lost their way and wandered into the “ecomusée forest” without realizing.
 There are many problems in Japanese ecomusées but two are particularly bad. The worst one is that Japanese ecomusées are never museums. In Japan, a museum means mere "there are various things". There is also a law for museums in Japan but people who manage ecomusées do not obey this law. Curators must be stationed in museums but almost all Japanese ecomusées have no regular curators there. An ecomusée without curators is no better than a school without teachers.
 Naoko Chiba (2009) gathered a lot of information on Japanese ecomusée. She sent a questionnaire to 56 ecomusées in Japan and received answers from 33 (one of them was disappeared halfway so her data was constructed from 32).

Table7 Do you recognize ecomusées as scientific museums?

Answer Percentage
1. Yes. 41%
2. No. 31%
3. Others. 25%
4. No answers. 3%

From Chiba’s data (2009)

 According to Chiba’s other data, 69% of Japanese ecomusée have no curators and only 25% have some (6% of those are preparing to introduce a curator now). But the 25% answer includes both curators in law and all inhabitants as a curator, so we must be careful in reading this data. She also asked the 69% (having no curators) whether curators were necessary or not for ecomusées, 47% of them answered Yes but 48% said No. Someone answered they have no curators because they have no budget, but others said that they don’t feel the necessity of a curator at all. It means that being a Japanese ecomusée recognized as an scientific museum by foreign counties is quite a difficult task.

Table8 What is the purpose of an ecomusée?

Answer Per.
1. Social reconstruction. 48%
2. Cooperative community. 19%
3. Natural conservation. 14%
4. Others. 19%

From Chiba’s data (2009)

 People who regard ecomusées as a social reconstruction (48%) are expecting the area to develop (31%), civic cooperation with administration (31%), cooperation each other (13%), environmental preservation (19%). Chiba also asked them whether they have intentions to act as a museum and 87% responded No. It is a discouraging result from this question in particular. In other categories (as a Cooperative community or Natural conservation), people’s expectations for ecomusées are simply as a social movement in the local community, and very few people are treating it as a museum. It is very disappointing.
 It is certainly important for us to get along with each other or have interest in our community but Japanese ecomusées do nothing but set great store on these neighborhood concerns and do not act as a museum. They draw maps without any scientific knowledge so we can not have much confidence in their information of natural history (this is another reason why general curators in Japan do not regard ecomusées as museums) and their activities will not be able to continue, either.
 I know it’ll be fun for the civic people to experience some activities of museum and is also important for them to think of their culture or nature by themselves, but the activities held by museums are not always fun. Sometimes they will be very difficult to continue but we must persevere and collect data for a long time.
 In Japan most of the civic people have fun just a result (not as an educational activities but just as tourists), so working together is still difficult. Therefore many Japanese ecomusées cannot continue their activities. They are going to get tired of the activities after a while.
 Some critics’ points against traditional museums are also not correct. They say old museums usually deal only with sophisticated and invaluable culture but ecomusées deal with their everyday life, so ecomusées are not for intellectual people but for ordinary folk people. They often jump to the conclusion that museums deal only with special archaeology or history (in fact most Japanese curators are archaeology or history majors) but of course, we also deal with anthropology or folklore. Almost all things people want to deal with in ecomusées - everyday works, food, clothes, houses, societies, annual events, festivals, ritual, religion, myths, music, arts and so on, are exactly what anthropologists or folklorists have done from the beginning in traditional museums. This is also a problem in ordinary Japanese museums - there are few curators major in anthropology or folklore.
 And in Japanese ecomusées, people take part for fun. Each person has other daily work somewhere else and his/her activities for ecomusées are usually voluntary service. This is also the reason ecomusées cannot continue. They think they are volunteers and do not have any responsibility, so their activities usually are half-finished. A few officers working at ecomusées begin to show an inclination toward a merchant to get a living wage. They are going to convert their rooms for exhibition into a new space for a museum shop, then a lot of Japanese ecomusées unfortunately become more like shops.
 Considering the circumstances, people in Japan have taken notice of ecomusées not to improve old museums but to unite communities or to reorganize tourism industries, so they are quite careless about scientific preciseness, do not employ curators, and as such activities cannot go on, at eventually become a shop. To break this deadlock, we need to regard ecomusées as scientific museums and to employ curators or educators and to get working funds not only from shops but from entertaining and interesting educational activities.
 Another low point is this: I’m concerned about Japanese ecomusée and their focus on preservationism. We often deal natural, cultural or industrial sites in our ecomuseés, but in industrial heritage in particular (like an old mine), people are inclined to preserve it rather than conserve it. Of course, we might follow this path when dealing with heritage sites, but if we were to preserve any old area, encircle it with walls, and collect an entrance fee while no people are living there, it would be not an ecomusée but simply an open-air museum. It is no use sticking to the name but I think that ecomusées should contribute to current inhabitants and their future more directly than things of a bygone era. It is of course not the problem to discuss whether it is right or wrong but whether to preserve or conserve what you want. In Japan the view people are holding to ecomusées is so vague that they often wander into the forest and lose their way; they were trying to conserve at first but eventually turned to preservation at last.

Fig.8 Entrance of the Gold Ecological Park, Taiwan, March 2009.
* The park is separated from living area around.

 Not only Japan but Asian countries seem to have same tendency because museums have meant preservation in these countries for a long time. For example, a closed gold mine in Jiufen, Northern part of Taiwan, is now presented in such a way to appeal to tourists. Some people call it an ecological park or some people call it an ecomuseum. The park is separated from the living area around, although many tourists are coming and so many people are living in Jiufen now that you will understand the old features of the area when you visit this park, but I don’t know whether you can understand the new one or the circumstances now.
 The reason I insist in this paper on the availabilities of French ecomusées or anthropological curators is, I’m confident, that museums connect past and future. To observe the inhabitants living now is more relevant in the present day (*10).

From: Hiroyuki Kajihara (2010) Fieldwork and Feedback: Attempts in public anthropology through an ecomusée in Japan
The Bulletin of The Kyushu Anthropological Associaton, No.37, pp.1-34, 2010

written in February 2009
revised 26 September, 2009
accepted 2 June, 2010

* If you want a copy of this paper, please see here and ask the museum.